The knock at the door to her office told Dean Diane Goddard that she wouldn't have the last few minutes of lunch to herself after all.
She repressed a sigh and said "Come in" as she took the last bite of her cheesecake slice. After years spent working in the HCP, even the Dean had picked up a vice or two to cope with the stress. Thankfully, her figure was managed by prior arrangement so the occasional indulgence wasn't the risk it was to many others. The creamy delicious taste filled her senses until it was interrupted by her brother barging into the room.
Sam Goddard looked harried, exhausted and more than a bit upset. Sadly, this wasn't an uncommon state of affairs for the quick-tempered man. Ever since she'd recruited him to West Private's HCP, Sam had taken his job a little too seriously, every success and failure of its students weighting on his shoulders. The man was a prodigy with any kind of weapon invented but combat mastery didn't necessarily mean emotional mastery.
Of course, Diane had enough for both of them.
"What's on your mind, Sam? I have an Ethics lecture in five minutes."
Before the Dean's brother could utter another word, his wife promptly burst into the room without knocking. Elaine was flustered, upset and the look on her face brooked no delay. Wisely, Sam took one look at his wife's face and immediately yielded the floor to her.
"Our controls on Nate have failed."
Dean Goddard swallowed hard, suddenly feeling the cheesecake turning to a rock-like slab in her stomach. "Has there been an incident then?"
"No, not as far as we can tell. It came up in the Sophomore Focus class. I was drilling the Advanced Minds on thought resistance techniques, trying to screen their thoughts from the detection of other telepaths. It's not uncommon for secrets to come up in these exercises. That's how I learned Nate used his ability and Julie was helpless to stop him."
"When and where, Elaine?"
"Um, about a month ago as near as I can tell. A fraternity party got out of control and he stopped a riot and then made the witnesses forget. His Domination was too swift and strong for her to counter. Julie's one of my fastest disrupters, Diane. She can keep almost any Super student at West from being able to concentrate enough to invoke their ability but she wasn't fast enough."
The Dean took several breaths to calm down. Then she quietly put her fork away, tossed the paper plate her cheesecake slice had been on and gathered up her notes for Ethics. Straightening the stack with several swift taps against her antique oak desk, Dean Goddard rose from her chair and faced her professors.
"I'll expect a more thorough report from you after you've had the opportunity to debrief Julie in greater detail. Particularly why she didn't come to us with this information when it happened. In the meantime, I don't see any immediate danger. We've been monitoring staff and students for signs of Domination ever since Mr. Insley arrived here. There's no evidence he's done anything criminal at this point. In fact, by all accounts, he showed good judgment. The one case we know of is already covered up, correct? And Mr. Insley permitted Julie to keep her own memories? I suspect our Professor Glee would fail him out of Subtlety for mistakes that obvious. Thank you for informing me, Elaine. I'll look into additional security measures."
"You realize if this gets out to the Army, or to anyone, you could wind up in jail," Elaine said, almost trembling with her concern. "If we don't take immediate-"
"Mrs. Goddard." The Dean's voice silenced further objections. "I have a contingency for dealing with Mr. Insley. It's been in place since his arrival and remains in place. Leave the Army and other interested parties to me. In the meantime, I have an Ethics class to teach. Sam, let's talk on the way."
Her brother and sister-in-law nodded glumly. Diane permitted herself an indulgent press of her fingertips against the bridge of her nose, vainly pushing at the headache forming behind her temples. Family. Why on earth had she thought it would be a good idea to permit relatives on the staff?
Dean Goddard left her office with Sam Goddard in tow. The hallways of the faculty offices were a bit busier than usual, mostly owing to the juniors and seniors coming and going from private appointments. There was still a measure of privacy on the walk towards the central classrooms of the underground HCP facility. In the space between students, Diane gestured for Sam to say what he'd come to say.
Diane, just thought you might want to know I've had no luck with Finn.
The Dean pressed her fingers against her temples once more and waved off Sam from speaking with an offhand wave. What do you mean by 'no luck', Ava? Alternate training doesn't begin until next semester, which is the earliest most Advanced Minds see the Control instructor.
True. But Finn's an unusual case. On rare occasions, we've seen telepaths with no telekinetic ability but it's extremely rare to see the other way around. The mental voice of Professor Ava Stevens echoed in the Dean's head, doing little for her headache. With Finn, the evidence suggests he is telepathic but it's blocked somehow. I've examined him in great detail, Diane. If a telepath's mind is like an open hand that can reach out to others, Finn's mind is more like a fist clenched tightly around itself. I can't even get a glimpse of his thoughts. I'm starting to think trauma might be respon-
Ms. Stevens. Enough. What do you need from me right now?
I'd like your approval to test groups of student Advanced Minds against him, see if we can make a breakthrough.
I appreciate your enthusiasm, Ava. This is only the first semester, however. Let's see if Finn makes it to the winter term before we invest substantial time and energy in him.
The Dean sighed. Then she forced a smile for her brother. At least the walk together had settled his nerves somewhat. Sam seemed less anxious, judging by the way his gaze causally rove around the HCP common room they crossed on route to Ethics. He looked more composed too.
"I'm sorry, Sam. What is it?"
"Let's talk after class," Sam said.
The Dean nodded and let him go. Seconds later, she arrived at the Ethics classroom. The classroom was already full of students. About half still used paper notebooks of one kind or another. The remainder went to laptops and tablets in about equal proportion, depending on student experience.
At least the class took notes. Dean Goddard decided this year's freshman class was among the most attentive. Only two or three students left in the program had to be cajoled to participate or pay attention.
She walked to the podium on the stage before the assembled class. Settling her notes on the stand, the Dean looked up at the attentive faces of her students. As usual, her eyes drifted to the Major's quartet. Nate Insley looked somber, lost in painful introspection as he too often was these days. His best friend Finn Barnaby whispered something flirtatious to his girlfriend, Amara English. Jia Sun was ready to take notes, all of her attention fixed squarely on the Dean. Such perfect conduct. Beside her, Alley Amherst always sat in casual contrast, never seeming to pay attention though always quick with an answer if called upon.
Why had Major Isaiah Diaz asked for their enrollment? What was his plan? When would the four do something to show their purpose?
"Good afternoon, class," the Dean began. "Today, we'll begin class by discussing the fall semester final for Ethics. It consists of a research project on a Hero of your choice. You will present the results of this research for your final, as well as submit a twenty page paper. Please focus your presentation and paper on more than bare biographical facts. I'm interested in seeing what you learn about the person behind the Hero mask, what motivated them, what fired them. Spend some time learning who beat them and how they reacted to defeat. Do you have a question, Mr. Smith?"
Flynn Smith, arguably the only healer who'd ever ranked first in the boy's combat ranks, put his hand down. "With respect, Dean, what's the point? Isn't that the kind of material covered in a Super Studies class?"
"Good questions. Does anyone have a guess on answers?" The Dean looked around and pointed. "Yes Jia?"
"If we're going to learn about being responsible Heroes who can be trusted, we might as well learn about actual Heroes who have had to face the same situations we might in the field."
"Good," Dean Goddard said. "Many of the situations Heroes face in the field haven't changed. How a Hero handled a hostage situation might someday inform your own experience with hostages. There's an additional factor I want everyone to remember; no one gets it right all the time. This class and your training over the next four years will hopefully teach you how to handle most of the usual cases of bad judgment. You will make mistakes however. Usually, it will be under pressure, in a situation with little time and grave consequences. Consider this project an opportunity to look at the brightest and darkest of times for the various Heroes we'll discuss and learn from them so we make fewer mistakes than perhaps they did."
The Dean surveyed her class and nodded once after seeing no further questions. "For your final, you will be expected to work in pairs. Traditionally, one student handles the bulk of the presentation while the other handles the written paper. How the two of you distribute the work will be up to you to decide. I've already assigned the class to teams. As I announce pairs, please move to sit with your partner so you can begin discussions on which Hero you wish to pick. You have until the end of the week to make a selection. Be mindful that choices are on a first-come, first-serve basis."
After that, it was a simple matter of reading out the list of names and watching the students react as the room progressively reorganized itself. As was her custom, the Dean split up the various cliques and factions, forcing students to mingle with students they didn't usually have much to do with. Some selections looked especially interesting.
Jia Sun looked thrilled to get Flynn Smith, ranked first in the class and one of the most seriously studious. Likewise, Finn Barnaby seemed pleased to get Natasha Adler, the Shifter with the steel wings. Alley Amherst was much less enthusiastic to be paired up with Danielle Wyngarde, the phasing girl she'd beaten in her first round of combat trials. Nate Insley would probably look nervous to be paired with anyone but Marie Yates, the Enhancer of the class, quickly settled those nerves with kindly conversation.
As the class settled down into discussion, the Dean looked over her notes. Everything was in order. The assignment should occupy the remainder of the class period, leaving her relative freedom to catch up on things. A flicker of a shadow outside the classroom door reminded her of Sam and his nebulous concern. If he still lurked outside, best to deal with it now.
The Dean opened the classroom door and stepped outside, with a last look into her classroom. Her students hadn't even noticed. Smirking slightly, she shut the door and turned to face her brother.
"Tell me I'm not the Conjurer."
She just stared in disbelief. "Fine," Diane said after the moment of surprise passed. "You're not the Conjurer. What would make you say something so preposterous?"
"You know who Paul Matthias is. I just found out who Dr. Amherst is, Sis. You remember what Glee said about me. I have the same ability he had. And we both know the Ringmaster could-"
"You're not." Diane shook her head and cupped his face with both hands. Her brother trembled beneath her fingers, caught up in emotions too strong for skin to contain. "I'd know. Besides, you can't actually create things like the Conjurer. What brought all of this on?"
It was Sam's turn to shake his head. "Only two of the Circus were ever apprehended and both of them work here as part of their service. We've both been part of the Hero community long enough to know the kind of mind games Villains can play. And with those kids investigating the Ringmaster for Major Diaz..."
"They're not the only ones watching," the Dean said, releasing her brother and reestablishing her professional calm. "If the Ringmaster comes to this school, I'll know. I'll know, Sam. Trust me."
Without another word, Sam Goddard turned and walked away, slowly receding down the corridor. Diane Goddard watched her brother go, her heart heavy as she watched him go. They'd been through so much. Teaching at West Private's HCP wasn't something a Hero as young as Sam usually did but there were good reasons for him to be here.
For both of them. One way or another, the Ringmaster seemed likely to turn up at West.
When he did, Diane would be ready.